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Volume 454: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

11. What recent reports he has received from the chiefs of staff on the security situation in Iraq. (105382)

As I have made clear in this House and publicly on many occasions, the security situation in Iraq remains difficult and challenging. However, many parts of the country are relatively stable, with the Iraqi security forces increasingly taking the lead. Sectarian violence remains the key challenge to security, but that is at the top of Prime Minister Maliki’s priorities, and the coalition continues to support him. The successful actions of UK forces in Basra this weekend demonstrate our resolve to help the Iraqi Government to confront sectarian groups and to create the space for the reconciliation process to work. This assessment of the security situation is consistent with the Iraq study group’s assessment as set out on pages 3 to 6 of its report.

Given the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the comments by General Dannatt to the effect that the presence of UK troops in certain parts of the country is exacerbating the security situation, can the Secretary of State tell the House, without giving inappropriate details, if these deployments are continuing, and if so, why?

As General Dannatt made clear in subsequent interviews, his remarks concerned the position of our troops in Maysan province at a particular time when they were subject to a particular type of attack. The hon. Gentleman and the House will be aware that we were in the process of redeploying those troops. They are still in Maysan province in significant numbers, but they are not the tethered goat that some people suggested that they were when they were in a fixed position—they are moving around the province and working more on the border. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s qualifying his question by not inviting me to explain how we might redeploy other troops in future, but he can rest assured that the particular difficulty that we face in fixed positions in Iraq is uppermost in the minds of the commanding officers and of those at the MOD.

May I say at the outset that many of us believe that the Prime Minister should be in the House today making a statement on the Iraq study group? What is good enough for press conferences in the White House and Whitehall should be good enough for the House of Commons.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor said on Iraq:

“We will not stay one day longer than we are needed and wanted by them, but we will not leave one day too early against their wishes or under threat.”—[Official Report, 27 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 542.]

Does he agree that while everyone wants our troops to come home as soon as possible, an explicit timetable, as suggested by the Iraq study group, risks being seen as a green light by insurgents, risks our being blown off course by events, and risks creating more instability in Iraq, not less?

I agree that if we set ourselves a fixed timetable for the removal of our troops from Iraq, we will potentially hand a victory to those who seek to attack our troops in Iraq, and give them a timetable to work to. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the condition-based approach that we have taken to the withdrawal and subsequent draw-down of our troops in Iraq. I am also grateful for the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, especially in a newspaper article that he wrote after his visit to Iraq. We should stick to the strategic approach that we have always taken to the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq—that is, that it should reflect conditions on the ground.

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that it would not be in Britain’s national interest to leave behind a destabilised Iraq, teetering on the brink of civil war and potentially drawing in neighbouring states. Does he again agree with his predecessor, who said:

“Our aim is to help the Iraqi people create a functioning democracy with the security to defend it while rebuilding their economy.”?

Is that still the case? Would not creating a false prospectus to leave Iraq be no more honourable than establishing a false prospectus to go into Iraq?

In a speech that I made last month, I outlined the three elements of our strategy. On security, we will build up the army and the police. That includes dealing with police corruption, and that is exactly what we are doing in Operation Sinbad in Basra. We will hand over security province by province, which is exactly what we have been doing in MND South-East. We will move to maintain an overwatch, standing by if we are needed to help the Iraqi forces. As for politics, we will support the democratically elected Government of Iraq, especially their reconciliation programme. In economics, we will help develop basic services, jobs and long-term projects. If that amounts to what the hon. Gentleman described in other words, I agree with him.

Does the Secretary of State believe that there are circumstances in which the American military could stay in Iraq but the British could leave? If so, what are they?

I do not think that it would be helpful at this stage to speculate on the circumstances that may exist in the coming months or years. We will continue to work with our coalition partners, especially the United States of America, to ensure that we have a common approach to what we are doing, recognising that we have responsibility for different parts of Iraq, where the conditions may be different from one place to another. However, we must also take into account not only the ability of the Iraqi Government and their security forces, but the Iraqi Government’s wishes.